Last week, leaders at the University of Virginia said they would continue their efforts to increase diversity at the school even though the results of two federal court cases may soon prohibit them from using traditional race-conscious admissions practices.
By this June, the highest court in the nation is expected to decide whether affirmative action, also known as race-conscious admissions policies, still has a place in American universities 50 years after it was established to regulate diversity on newly integrated campuses.
“We will continue to do everything within our legal authority to recruit a student body that is both extraordinarily talented and richly diverse across every imaginable dimension, including race,” UVa President Jim Ryan and Provost and Executive Vice President Ian Baucom wrote in a statement to the university community on May 15. “Those efforts reflect our commitment to serve the Commonwealth and beyond by making a UVA education as accessible as possible for all, including historically underrepresented students.”
In October 2022, the Supreme Court heard two cases from student organizations at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both cases — Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina — argue that all colleges and universities should limit or eliminate race-conscious admissions practices.
The Jefferson Council, a conservative alumni association, says it would welcome the change to admission policies.
“We believe the higher rate at which African-Americans drop out compared to other groups is an indication that they are more likely to struggle when admitted to UVa,” James A Bacon, Jefferson Council executive director, told The Daily Progress. “One can argue whether that struggle stems from financial stress or academic preparedness, or both, but it’s a reality that must be acknowledged.”
UVa does not use “quotas for admissions by race or any other category or characteristic,” but UVa spokesman Brian Coy said the university considers race as an admissions factor because “race is often an important part of the life experience of our applicants” and may be considered among “many other dimensions of who they are.”
Black students are not the demographic with the lowest one-year retention rates for first-year undergraduate students at UVa; Black students who entered UVa in the fall of 2021 maintained a 96% retention rate, according to the most recent university data available. It is international students that had the lowest retention rate, of 92%.
In the fall of 2019, Virginia Magazine, a quarterly run by UVa alumni, reported that, while UVa is test-optional, the average SAT score for the class of 2023 was 1409. That same year, the national average SAT score among high school students was 1059, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Black students made up 6.8% of the alumni class from that year, which included 3,971 students who joined the university in the fall of 2019.
“Nothing is commendable about being the third best public university when this illusion of success is established in the reality of Black subjugation,” a group that calls itself Black U.Va. wrote in a letter published on the student-run Cavalier Daily news site. “The peak 12 percent Black enrollment rate has continued to decline since the 1990s. In order to reflect a representative body of the state of Virginia, the University should boast a Black student body of at least 20 percent. The disparate amount of Black students yielded into the University continues to compound the racial inequities that are foundational to this institution.”
The Students for Fair Admissions are led by Edward Blum, a 70-year-old conservative legal strategist known for his activism against affirmative action based on race and ethnicity. Prior to the cases involving Harvard and UNC, Blum, who is not a lawyer, presented six other cases to the Supreme Court based on his belief that considering race and ethnicity is unconstitutional — even when it is to correct the inequities created by discrimination.
In 2016, Blum recruited Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was rejected by the University of Texas at Austin, to dispute the school’s practice of factoring race into undergraduate admissions decisions. That same year, the high court ruled that the school’s policy should stand in a 4-3 decision.
Blum co-founded Students for Fair Admissions with Fisher in 2014.
Now, with a six-justice conservative majority and the recent decision to strike down the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision, the court has already proven its readiness to overturn decades of precedent.
“If you are an in-state African-American applicant whose parent is an alumnus, your odds of getting accepted are roughly four times that of an out-of-state White applicant with no family connections,” Bacon wrote in a blog post on the Jefferson Council website. “The preference shown to in-state students is non-controversial. UVa is a legal entity of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and it is financially supported by state tax dollars to benefit the citizens of Virginia.”
Bacon told The Daily Progress that fellow Jefferson Council member Walter Smith submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for UVa to provide “an explanation of UVa’s admissions criteria” and the inner workings of its race-conscious admissions policies, but said he has not heard back.
Smith did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Progress.
“Once the opinion is made public, we will share more information about the University’s response,” Ryan and Baucom wrote. “For now, we want to emphasize what we hope you already know: Every member of this community belongs and deserves to be here, and together you make this University the remarkable and vibrant community it is.”